The cowboys hooted at us as we left the bar, their slobbering, drunken faces hanging off the back of their pickup trucks like a half dozen of the wobbly-headed dog-toys in the back of car windows on the highway.
“What ya doin', darlings!" they shouted and laughed, slapping each other on the backs.
"Ignore them, Daniel," I said, gripping his arm hard. I knew him. I knew his attitude towards cowboys-- call it a stubborn streak which said he wasn't going to take anything from anybody, let alone beer-brained bully boys from the ranches.
He didn't listen to me. He gave them the finger.
We had no business outside the wall of our neighborhood after the dark. But Daniel insisted. He couldn’t get enough of taking chances.
This was his kind of thing, not mine. Maybe we had to work outside the neighborhood, going through the Outlands on our way to and from work. But I never saw a reason to play there, too.
We had a good neighborhood. The board didn’t merely tolerate us, but shaped the bylaws to make certain nobody felt out of place. And not everyone in the neighborhood was gay either.
I needed to talk to Daniel, something he had put off for the whole night, claiming we could talk in the car on the way to the bar, then putting that off until we were in the bar, and then once situated at a table, ignored each of my efforts to communicate – short of asking him what he wanted to drink or which cowboy he found hot.
I guess I was as much jealous as I was annoyed. Daniel had a reputation for liking straight boys as much as he did gays, and I felt that he would have taken up with any of the cowboys had one bothered to ask him.
But this was not that kind of bar, and almost from the moment we arrived, I felt the hostility. They rode their bucking mechanical horses or acted out their holographic scenes for the amusement of the other men – each scene more violent than the last, involving bar fights and physical abuse that left me feeling extremely uncomfortable. Despite the array of detectors at the doors, I knew each cowboy possessed a weapon, and from the way they eyed us over their drinks, I knew if we pushed things, they would use those weapons on us.
Sixty years since Stonewall and we still couldn’t feel safe anywhere outside of our own neighborhoods.
“Daniel, I need to talk to you,” I said, drawing his stare from the rearview mirror. He looked put out by me, as if he was getting his kicks off the fact that the cowboys had piled out of the bar behind us. His makeup hid some of the scars left from his botched implants – designed to make him look more feminine. At night, when he took off the makeup, he looked a bit like Frankenstein.
“What is it, Peter?” he asked sharply, as he punched the correct code for the ignition sequence – our turbo lift Beamer humming to life under us, although on the rough roads outside the city, the car did not live up to sales people’s claims for smooth riding. “Why have you been bugging me all night? You said you had something important to tell me. Is that what has made you such miserable company?”
“I suppose so,” I said.
I was nervous. To tell you the truth, Daniel scared me as much as the cowboys did. He was always aching for violence, and often dragged me to the gang wars downtown to watch the clashes. His eyes always grew bright at the spilling of blood.
One of the cowboys stepped in front of us before Daniel had a chance to hit the lift command – the man’s large face hidden under a spread of salt-and-pepper beard that made him seem demonic. With us so low on the ground, the cowboy looked taller than he actually was – although his six feet something inches was quite tall enough. He held a metal baseball bat in one hand and glared down at us.
“What was that you did, Faggot?” the cowboy asked.
“If you don’t get out of our way, I’ll do more than give you a finger,” Daniel said boldly.
“Will you, eh?” the cowboy howled, and called over to the others. “This faggot’s threatening to beat the shit out of me.”
“I didn’t say that,” the indignant Daniel growled, his hand moving ever so slowly towards the car’s defense control box – he had carelessly neglected to turn it on the moment we got in.
The Beamer’s defense system wouldn’t hold of a sustained attack the way an armored vehicle would, but it would cause a lot of pain and make enough noise to discourage attack. It would also summon the police.
The bat struck the dashboard before Daniel’s fingers could reach it, shattering the metal and plastic in a single blow.
“Don’t go there, boy,” the cowboy said as his companions edged their pickup truck up to the side, the front and back spilling over with thick-muscled limbs. The tattoos and the scars made them resemble one of the city gangs. They lacked the typical physical additions, the canine teeth, the spiked colored-hair, the surgically installed deformities or weapons.
“We’re not bothering you,” Daniel said, staring down at the destroyed mechanism, as if pondering whether the assault had activated any of its features.
“Bothering us?” the cowboy asked with a harsh laugh. “You’ve been bothering us all night, sitting there at that table like pretty little chicks. Don’t you have bars of your own you can go to? Or were you looking for real men’s dicks to stick up your butts?”
I could see Daniel’s face growing red. It was a certain sign of anger. But I grabbed his arm and squeezed, hoping to discourage him from another fight. We were too far out from the city to hope that his skills as a fighter could hold off the cowboys until the law would come – if the law came at all with our distress signal disabled.
Then, in a move that startled even me, Daniel hit the accelerator.
It was not a proper maneuver, one completely against every safety regulation, our sudden lift off knocking the cowboy and his metal baseball bat back.
I saw the cowboy fall, but did not see if he injured himself. Daniel gunned the flyer and we rushed off, rocking as the uneven road beneath the car kept us from a steady flight.
“That was crazy!” I said.
“It’s better than getting beat up,” Daniel said.
“If you hadn’t given them the finger, maybe we would have escaped without violence.”
“Don’t be so naïve, Peter,” Daniel said. “The minute we got up to go, those cowboys were going to attack us. Now what is it you wanted to talk about?”
He was driving with one hand, using the manual controls because automatic pilot could not handle the dips. But he paid no attention to the road, and more than once had to jerk the wheel around so as to avoid hitting a tree or boulder, among the parade of deadly objects leaping out at us from the dark.
He smiled at me, half mockingly, half with the brutal tenderness that had made me fall for him in the first place. He always managed to defuse my anger with that smile or to misdirect me: his scent suffocating me despite the open top and the motion, like a potion I could not resister.
“Well?” he asked. “What is it you wanted to talk about?”
“I've been to the clinic, Daniel,” I said.
I felt him stiffen, his hands gripping tight the steering wheel. He wasn't looking at me again, mouth set into a grimace.
“I thought I told you not to,” he said.
“I had to know, Daniel,” I said. “I mean for sure.”
“All right,” he said. But it wasn't all right. It was far from all right. It was about as all right as slapping him in the face.
In the 40 years since the first of the immune diseases made their appearance, this was a moment many of us had to face – and in my case, I was calling him a liar.
I had remained loyal to him. And yet, the symptoms had come, and the doctor’s confirmation. It was a death sentence for both of us.
Then as if an answer to his mumbled prayer, headlights appeared behind us, ground level, rocking and rolling over the rough ground, but clearly advancing on us – despite our technological advantage. Air cars saved time but cutting corners, flying over obstacles, not by an increase of speed. Caught in this channel of trees and boulders, we could not match the old-fashioned vehicles that gave us pursuit.
On his side of the car, the cowboys came, their pickup truck back loaded to the brim with them, hooting and hollering and laughing, looking as silly as teenagers, yet as perverted as most normal things were, them staring up at as they kept up with our car.
“Hey, honey!” one of them shouted. “You sure you don't want to give us a blow job?”
Daniel yelled back. “Fuck off!”
He punched the control panel for overdrive, as a few beer bottles struck our car. Overdrive proved disastrous as it increased our speed and our instability.
“Turn it off!” I yelled. “It’ll shake to piece.”
The cowboys laughed at our dilemma
Daniel’s eyes glowed. He did not look as scared as I would have expected, but had the expression I sometimes caught when he was viewing a particularly grisly moment at the clash of gang ritual each Friday night. Suddenly, he slowed the air car and let it drop closer to the ground.
“What are you doing?” I screamed as the pickup trucks swirled around us, now at eye level.
We suffered another assault of beer bottles and obscenities, and this did not upset Daniel either. He seemed drunk on the promise of violence – even though we were going to be the subjects.
The road straightened, then slid into another series, and another. But it was all too dark and the glow of the city was too far away to promise us hope.
Daniel grew even more reckless, steering the car to the right then to the left, causing our bumper to collide with the fenders of the pickup trucks on either side.
I wanted him to stop, and yet the action also attracted me. I wanted him to make love to me, over the steering wheel, even as the car pitched and sway. I wanted him to make it all worth it, to give me something in trade for the life time stolen from me by his carelessness. Could he love me as hard as he drove that car? Could he enough to make my death sentence worth it?
Then, he slammed on the brakes, my arms going up as we pitched towards the windshield. But he stopped in time. He stopped inches from the wall of the dead-end canyon, his engine stalling, the air car floating down to the ground as the pick up trucks skidded amid clouds of dust.
That’s the last I remember until I woke up here in this hospital bed. They tell me Daniel put up a struggle before they killed him.
He must have known he had nothing to live for. Maybe he figured they’d kill us both, save us the next few years of agony.
Daniel was wrong. I survived.